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Belarus – US: what’s the latest strategic dialogue and what should we expect from it? Changing role of Belarus in the region

Belarus - US: what’s the latest strategic dialogue and what should we expect from it? Changing role of Belarus in the region

Belarus is going through a transformative time in its history, which also means changes in foreign relations, including those with the US. The protests of 2020 and the war in Ukraine acted as catalysts, instigating renewed attention to Belarus and the wider Eastern European region in general.

Popular consensus places many of the region’s problems at the door of one major player: Russia. This country was at the root of the protest’s causes and the escalation in Ukraine, launching an invasion, both directly and through Belarusian territory.

The question of Belarusian sovereignty is tightly connected to the question of regional security. The dependence of Belarus on Russia has already resulted in its indirect participation in the war. In addition, it now risks a full-scale participation of the country, which can become a serious risk for regional stability. On the other side, free and democratic Belarus wouldn’t permit Russia to exercise its aggressive behavior, both in Ukraine and towards the EU. It’s for this reason that the US should consider Belarus as a crucial actor in regional security.

Recently, the Belarusian democratic movement jointly announced the declaration for the European future for Belarus, which paves the way for Belarus into the EU future. This document offers a comprehensive roadmap to making Belarus a part of united Europe.

Europe will be different after Russia’s war against Ukraine. Starting from its expansion and the inclusion of new members and ending with carbon-neutrality and energy independence, the future Europe will be a different place. Democratic Belarus wants to play a role in those transformations.

In the past, the focus of the US was mostly focused on Russia as a regional power rather than Belarus, seen to be a minor regional player or puppet state to Russian influence. Now, Russia is experiencing a decline in its influence, largely due to the war in Ukraine and the response of the West. As a result, the strategic role of Belarus is becoming more influential.

Currently, considering the war in Ukraine, there are numerous potential scenarios playing out in the region, and with no clear path towards a peaceful, productive outcome. In addition, there is a lack of clarity on what will happen next, including the situation in Belarus. An important thing that all the actors should keep in mind is the finding of proper balance between pressure and engagement. It means encouraging democratic reforms and human rights, while keeping pressure on dictators.

Importance of identity

Belarusians are not Russians, nor do they consider themselves Russians. Belarus has its own language, culture, and identity. Unfortunately, they are being suppressed by Russian influence, which makes it even more important to keep the question of identity on the table, as a way to counter Russian influence.

One of the ways to help Belarus become free is to educate new leaders. Up to 500,000 Belarusians have left the country recently. These are often innovative, successful people who can bring a lot to the table. At some point, the knowledge, experience, and creativity of such people will open a window for democracy. We should be ready for this window, with managers, politicians, and activists, to make a change in the country.

The current Belarusian regime doesn’t need entrepreneurial Belarusians: such people are a danger to the regime. And for this specific reason, it is of utmost importance to support the network of such people in exile so that they can help the country and become true catalysts of the change.

Five steps of the US to support Belarus

One of the main pillars of American democracy towards Belarus is the support of the democratic movement and making Lukashenka accountable for his actions. To achieve these goals, five main steps are taken.

First – support of the democratic movement

The US government constantly searches for ways to empower the Belarusian democratic movement. One of the ways is the forum for democracy, where Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was invited to speak among other leaders. In addition, other leaders, such as Tatiana Khomich, also participated in the discussions.

Second – release of political prisoners

The release of political prisoners is another significant pillar. The actions that are taken in this direction include international campaigns and department of state messaging. One of the most notable events in this domain is the #WithoutJustCause initiative of the department of state aimed at addressing the worrying trend of authoritarian regimes taking political prisoners. In the recent edition, three Belarusian political prisoners were included in the initiative: Ihar Losik, Marya Kalesnikava, and Ales Bialiatski.

Third – support of initiatives

Assistance towards active Belarusians. An important part of these efforts go to the support of grassroot movements throughout civil society, promoting advocacy and independent media, as well as recording human right abuses. The ultimate goal of the latter is to use the records in courts to make all actors accountable. Over past years, the assistance has increased due to the growing importance of the region.

Fourth – accountability

It’s essential to make those who engage themselves in unlawful activities. The US sanctions more than 170 individuals and enterprises accountable for human rights abuses, as well as those who were supporting and facilitating the Russian offensive in Ukraine.

The main goal of the current sanctions is the change of repressive behavior of the state. However, Lukashenka’s regime seems to act aggressively in response to the sanctions, thinking that the US will loosen their pressure. However, the US message to the regime is simple: the pressure will continue until the situation becomes in line with the international norms. The US hasn’t forgotten August 2020.

Fifth – awareness

Fifth, and finally, as the time after the 2020 elections grows, it becomes increasingly more important to maintain the actuality and awareness of the global public about the situation in Belarus. It’s especially challenging considering the global attention towards the war in Ukraine and the escalation in the Middle East. For this reason, the US is launching a strategic dialogue with the Belarusian democratic movement and civil society.

Strategic dialogue—what to expect and how to prepare?

It’s crucial that the proposals of the Belarusian side should be concrete and clear. It’s important to both have concise plans and different ideas: both small and large. The strategic dialogue is an opportunity to speak directly to US officials, which should be used wisely and with concrete and productive proposals. During the dialogue, it is expected to see multiple US governance bodies as well as various representatives of Belarus: journalists, union leaders, activists, and other people engaged in the civil and democratic movement. One of the important details about the dialogue is that Belarusians inside the country should also be heard during it: either directly or through representatives.

In fact, in 2017 there was an attempt to start a strategic dialogue with Belarus to restart the relations that were frozen in 2008. At that time, the US communicated directly to the Belarusian government, which included several bi-lateral official visits. However, the caliber of representation, especially of the civil rights community, was rather low at that time. It was a small-step process that started from zero that was aimed at starting something longer.

However, that attempt didn’t last long. With the closure of the American embassy and hundreds of political prisoners, all the attempts froze. In fact, after the expulsion of the American ambassador in 2017, there has been a worrying lack of high-level communication between the US and Belarus. For these two reasons, the current strategic dialogue with Belarusian democratic representatives becomes ever more important.

There are several points of view on how the dialogue should be organized. One scenario is to hold it annually on deputy-secretary of state level at least with various US bodies and the senate. Between these meetings, there should be continuous work on six main directions: political and human rights, accountability, media, identity and culture, and the private sector. From these sectors, there will be representatives from both the Belarusian and American side.

In fact, it would be beneficial to hold the meetings more often. To compensate for the severe deficit of high-level contacts, the meetings can be held even on a quarterly basis.

Special envoy as a way to refresh the relations

As the situation stands, relations between the US and Belarus require a serious boost. One of the ways to do it is to introduce a position of a special envoy for Belarus. Such a person can operate outside the frames of a usual ambassador in extraordinary situations, like the current one. In our case, this person could not only dedicate time to the organization of the strategic dialogue, but also promoting the Belarusian agenda in OESC and EU offices, as well as working in Warsaw and Vilnius, where a large proportion of Belarusian diaspora live. 

How US officials speak to Belarusians

Currently, the US embassy in Minsk doesn’t function. There is a Belarusian affairs unit at the US Embassy in Vilnius through which the US communicates with Belarus. However, this communication is far from fruitful both due to lack of people on the ground and disagreement on key issues, which isn’t likely to change soon.

US diplomats may experience problems going to Minsk, but there are active actions taken in the EU and US. Namely, there are units dedicated to Belarus in plenty of embassies across Eastern Europe. In addition, several officials, including a former ambassador of the US in Belarus – Michael Kozak – are working with diaspora and activists both in Europe and in Washington.

How to make US officials listen

One of the strategies and ways to reach out to the officials in Washington is to go through the threat of Russia as well as through joint attention to the Eastern European region. This can trigger important topics and allow, to be more fruitful and beneficial.

However, the key to communicating both the cause of Belarus and specific actions is persistence. Activists and democratic politicians should submit as much information as possible about those who should be targeted by the sanctions.

American persistence in support for freedom

There should be no fear that the US would loosen its pressure in case Lukashenka releases some of the political prisoners. The US closely monitors the situation and is aware of the increasing number of political prisoners, hence the attempts to fool US officials would fail: nobody is going to release pressure until the regime releases all the prisoners. The US clearly sees the manipulative nature of such attempts.

It’s important to keep in mind that even if there are now direct signs of action from US officials, the work is, in fact, ongoing: there are political groups in the US interested in supporting Belarusian democracy, and it won’t disappear.

Photo: Reuters